Trump’s National Prayer Declaration in Historical Context

adams-proclomation

Here is Trump’s proclamation:

In our times of greatest need, Americans have always turned to prayer to help guide us through trials and periods of uncertainty.  As we continue to face the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are unable to gather in their churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship.  But in this time we must not cease asking God for added wisdom, comfort, and strength, and we must especially pray for those who have suffered harm or who have lost loved ones.  I ask you to join me in a day of prayer for all people who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and to pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.

As your President, I ask you to pray for the health and well-being of your fellow Americans and to remember that no problem is too big for God to handle.  We should all take to heart the holy words found in 1 Peter 5:7:  “Casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you.”  Let us pray that all those affected by the virus will feel the presence of our Lord’s protection and love during this time.  With God’s help, we will overcome this threat.

On Friday, I declared a national emergency and took other bold actions to help deploy the full power of the Federal Government to assist with efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.  I now encourage all Americans to pray for those on the front lines of the response, especially our Nation’s outstanding medical professionals and public health officials who are working tirelessly to protect all of us from the coronavirus and treat patients who are infected; all of our courageous first responders, National Guard, and dedicated individuals who are working to ensure the health and safety of our communities; and our Federal, State, and local leaders.  We are confident that He will provide them with the wisdom they need to make difficult decisions and take decisive actions to protect Americans all across the country.  As we come to our Father in prayer, we remember the words found in Psalm 91:  “He is my refuge and my fortress:  my God; in him will I trust.”

As we unite in prayer, we are reminded that there is no burden too heavy for God to lift or for this country to bear with His help.  Luke 1:37 promises that “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” and those words are just as true today as they have ever been.  As one Nation under God, we are greater than the hardships we face, and through prayer and acts of compassion and love, we will rise to this challenge and emerge stronger and more united than ever before.  May God bless each of you, and may God bless the United States of America.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim March 15, 2020, as a National Day of Prayer for All Americans Affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic and for our National Response Efforts.  I urge Americans of all faiths and religious traditions and backgrounds to offer prayers for all those affected, including people who have suffered harm or lost loved ones.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fourteenth day of March, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fourth.

DONALD J. TRUMP

The founding fathers, of course, were divided over these kinds of proclamations.

On March 23, 1798, prior to the United States’s so-called “Quasi War” with France, president John Adams declared a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” for May 9, 1798. Here is a taste:

And as the United States of America are, at present, placed in a hazardous and afflictive situation, by the unfriendly Disposition, Conduct, and Demands of a foreign power, evinced by repeated refusals to receive our Messengers of Reconciliation and Peace, by Depradations on our Commerce, and the Infliction of Injuries on very many of our Fellow Citizens, while engaged in their lawful business on the Seas.–Under these considerations it has appeared to me that the Duty of imploring the Mercy and Benediction of Heaven on our Country demands, at this time, a special attention from its Inhabitants.

Here is what I wrote about this proclamation in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

Many perceived Adams’s call for a day of fasting and prayer to be little more than a political tool to win support for his own political party, the New England-concentrated Federalists.  The Federalists believed that government had the responsibility of enforcing public morality rooted in the Christian faith….Adams’s call for a day of fasting and prayer was endorsed by the Presbyterian Church, a denomination that was suspected by many to have secret ambitions of creating a national religious establishment.  The fast declaration was thus criticized by his Republican political enemies, including Thomas Jefferson, his eventual opponent in the next presidential election.  According to Adams, American religious denominations and sects, especially those who guarded their religious liberties closely and tended to vote Republican, cried out, “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, anybody, whether they be philosophers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian president.” Adams was not a Presbyterian, but his firm belief that the president should promote religion and morality did not sit well with those Christians and others who feared that such government involvement in religious matters was the first step toward tyranny and the erosion of religious freedom.  Adams would later write that his decision to call for a religious fast day may have cost him a victory in the 1800 presidential election. 

While there is certainly a tradition of these proclamations in our country’s history, there is also a tradition of presidents using these proclamations to advance a political agenda. With this in mind, Trump is both calling the nation to turn to God in this difficult moment and strengthening his evangelical base as the November elections approach.

In 1808, in light of the British impressment of American ships and the passing of the Embargo Act of 1807, New York City Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller asked president Thomas Jefferson to issue a day of fasting, humiliation, prayer. Here is a taste of his letter:

Several of my Clerical brethren, and other friends of Religion, in this city, deeply affected with the present aspect of our public affairs, have lately expressed an earnest wish that we might be called upon, as a nation, to observe a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer. Various means have been suggested for the attainment of this object. Among others, it has been proposed that the Clergy of our City, as a body, should make an application, more or less formal, to the President of the United States, requesting him, by Proclamation, to recommend such a public observance. I am not certain that such an application is determined on, even in the mind of an individual; but it has been proposed, and may possibly be made.—

The object of this letter is frankly to ask, whether such an application to you would be agreeable or otherwise. I am sensible that a question may arise, both with regard to the constitutional power of the President to act in a case of this kind, and the occasions on which it is expedient to exercise such a power, supposing it to be possessed. But on neither of these points does it become me to offer any observation. It is possible that your views of the subject might forbid you to take such a step as that which is proposed, under any circumstances: and it is also possible that an application from a body of respectable Clergymen might be considered as, in some degree, removing your objections, if any exist; at least such of them as arise from an aversion to all interference, on the part of a civil Magistrate, with the religious concerns of the community.—

Miller knew that Jefferson was no fan of these proclamations. Here is part of Jefferson’s response to Miller’s letter:

I have duly recieved your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorised to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the constitution from intermedling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. this results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the US. certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. it must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority.   but it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. that is that I should indirectly assume to the US. an authority over religious exercises which the constitution has directly precluded them from. it must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it: not indeed of fine & imprisonment but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. and does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, its discipline or its doctrines: nor of the religious societies that the General government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. fasting & prayer are religious exercises. the enjoining them an act of discipline, every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises & the objects proper for them according to their own particular tenets. and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. but I have ever believed that the example of State executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. be this as it may every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

As you can see, Jefferson did not believe that the United States government had the authority to issue such days of prayer. Notice that Jefferson did not agree with Adams’s previous proclamations and thus refused to follow Adams’s precedent.

What about James Madison? On June 30, 1812, as the United States entered a war with England in 1812, president Madison received a letter from Jacob Jones Janeway, the minister of the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and clerk at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which had met in Philadelphia the previous month.  Janeway wrote:

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, during their sessions in May last, recommended to all the churches under their care, to observe the last Thursday in July next as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. The Synod of the Associate Reformed Church, which was sitting in this City at the same time, concurred in the measure: and the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church, which lately met at Albany, adopted it, and have recommended the observance of that day by their churches. And I have been informed that, at the request of the last body presented, through the Legislature of the State of New York, to the Governor, he has consented to recommend the observance of the same day to all religious denominations in that state. A petition is now preparing to be sent to the Governor of this State, requesting him to recommend a concurrence in the religious exercises of that day to the people throughout this state.

From the preceding statement, it will be seen, that a large portion of the citizens of these United States, will be engaged in the observance of the day already mentioned: and I take the liberty of suggesting, that it will be an accommodation to them, as well as secure a more general concurrence in the devotions of the day, if your Excellency should think it proper to select that as the day to be recommended to the people of the United States of America, as a day of humiliation and prayer to Almighty God. What has been written must be the apology for this intrusion, by Your Excellency’s humble & obedient servant.

Madison did not heed Janeway’s call for a July day of prayer, but he eventually did issue such a presidential proclamation for August:

Whereas the Congress of the United States, by a joint Resolution of the two Houses, have signified a request, that a day may be recommended, to be observed by the People of the United States, with religious solemnity, as a day of public Humiliation and Prayer:1 and whereas such a recommendation will enable the several religious denominations and societies so disposed, to offer, at one and the same time, their common vows and adorations to Almighty God, on the solemn occasion produced by the war, in which he has been pleased to permit the injustice of a foreign power to involve these United States; I do therefore recommend the third Thursday in August next, as a convenient day, to be so set apart, for the devout purposes of rendering to the Sovereign of the Universe, and the Benefactor of mankind, the public homage due to his holy attributes; of acknowleging the transgressions which might justly provoke the manifestations of His divine displeasure; of seeking His merciful forgiveness, and His assistance in the great duties of repentance & amendment; and, especially, of offering fervent supplications, that in the present season of calamity and war, he would take the American People under His peculiar care and protection; that He would guide their public councils, animate their patriotism, and bestow His blessing on their arms; that He would inspire all nations with a love of justice & of concord, and with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion, to do to others as they would require that others should do to them; and, finally, that turning the hearts of our enemies from the violence and injustice which sway their councils against us, He would hasten a restoration of the blesings of Peace. Given at Washington the ninth day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twelve.

As historian John Ragosta argues in his book Religious Freedom: Jeffersonian’s Legacy, America’s Creed, Madison was always uncomfortable with these kinds of declarations. Ragosta writes,

[Like Jefferson], Madison…also struggled with proclamations.  During his administration, Congress asked for prayer proclamations at a time when the country faced the crisis of the War of 1812, a political crisis of confidence was almost overwhelming Madison, and dissolution of the union seemed a real possibility.  Even then, Madison was uneasy with the exercise. In 1813, he acquiesced to one declaration noting that Congress “signified a request” for a day of prayer, but he still moved cautiously, issuing “this my Proclamation, recommending to all, who shall be piously disposed…guided only by their free choice.” Later he explained: “I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unit in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms.”  Still, after the crisis passed, Madison regretted having issued even these qualified proclamations, viewing them as exceeding constitutional bounds. Government religious proclamations “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”  In addition to the problem of endorsement, Madison was concerned with the use (abuse) of religion to support political institutions (again, “priestcraft”).

If you’ve read this far, I hope this post give you some historical context for Trump’s proclamation today.  These proclamations have always been contested, political, and religious.

Annette Gordon-Reed Reviews Alan Taylor’s New Book on Jefferson and Education

Taylor JeffersonWhen a Pultizer-Prize-winning American historian reviews a new book from another Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian it is worth a separate post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Taylor’s book is titled Thomas Jefferson’s Education.  Here is a taste of Gordon-Reed’s review at The Atlantic:

The Revolution and the creation of the United States of America broadened Jefferson’s vision in many ways, and by his mid-40s, he had taken to insisting that the job of reforming Virginia—above all, ending slavery, a system in which he participated—would fall to “the rising generation.” He and his fellows in the revolutionary generation had done their service by founding a new country. It was now up to the young people who inherited that legacy to carry the torch and continue the advancement of what he considered Enlightenment values. But Jefferson could not totally bow out of the quest to transform the place he was born and had long thought of as his “country.” After 25 years in national public service, he was at last able to return to the project in 1809, and he did so decidedly in his own way.

Improving Virginia’s system of education, Jefferson believed, was the foundation upon which progress would be built, and the foundation had to be laid properly. If publicly supported primary and secondary schooling was not possible, he would shift his focus. He filled his time in retirement writing and answering letters, and playing host to the hordes of visitors who came up the mountain to see him. But his main mission was planning for a university that would rival the great universities in the North. No longer would the sons of Virginia be limited to attending his alma mater, William & Mary, or traveling north to Harvard or Yale—choices that disconcerted him for different reasons.

In Thomas Jefferson’s Education, Alan Taylor—the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia—probes that ambitious mission in clear prose and with great insight and erudition. He explains why Jefferson found those educational choices so intolerable, what he planned to do about the situation, and how his concerns and plans mapped onto a growing sectional conflict that would eventually lead to the breakup of the Union that Jefferson had helped create.

Read the entire review here.

The Paragraph on Slavery That Thomas Jefferson Cut From the Declaration of Independence

Declaration

Ben Railton has a nice blog post on this here.

A taste:

In this July 4th, 2015 piece for Talking Points Memo, my second-most viewed piece in my year and a bit of contributing bi-monthly columns to TPM, I highlighted and analyzed the cut paragraph on slavery and King George from Thomas Jefferson’s draft version of the Declaration of Independence. Rather than repeat what I said there, I’d ask you to take a look at that piece (or at least the opening half of it, as the second half focuses on other histories and figures) and then come back here for a couple important follow-ups.

Welcome back! As a couple commenters on that post noted (and as I tried to discuss further in my responses to their good comments), I didn’t engage in the piece with a definitely relevant historical context: that the English Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had in November 1775 issued (from on board a warship anchored just off the Virginia coast) a prominent Proclamation both condemning Virginian and American revolutionaries, declaring martial law in the colony, and offering the prospect of freedom to any African American slaves who left their owners and joined the English forces opposing them. A number of slaves apparently took Dunmore up on the offer, and so when Jefferson writes that “he [King George] is now exciting these very people to rise in arms among us,” he might have been attributing the idea to the wrong Englishman but was generally accurate about those English efforts. Yet of course Jefferson’s misattribution is no small error, as it turns a wartime decision by one English leader (and a somewhat unofficial one at that, as it’s not at all clear to me that Dunmore had the authority to make such an offer nor that the Crown would necessarily or consistently have upheld it) into a defining feature of the relationship between England and the colonies.

Read the entire post here.  I have really been enjoying Ben’s blog “American Studies.”

Christian Nationalists Making the Usual Mistakes About American History

Perkins

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, was not very happy with Paul Rosenberg and Frederick Clarkson’s recent Salon article on Religious Freedom Day.  He writes:

When Americans celebrate Religious Freedom Day tomorrow, not everyone will be happy about it. Liberals are already blasting the tradition that honors the 1786 signing of one of the most influential documents in American history: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Now, more than 230 years into the tradition that sparked a revolution, the Left is ready to recast history.

In Salon, hardly the bastion of conservative thought, Paul Rosenberg tries to persuade readers that freedom is the oppression, insisting that when Christians talk about religious liberty, it’s really just code for “theocratic supremacism of their own religious beliefs inscribed in government.” Taking aim at FRC in particular, Rosenberg points to Frederick Clarkson, who insists that our Church Ministries team has been “empowered to advance a dangerous suite of theocratic and persecutory policies” (while producing absolutely zero evidence to the effect). Instead, he talks suspiciously about our Culture Impact Teams (CITs), our network of on-the-ground activists in churches across America. Operating under the authority of the church’s leadership, CITs serve as the command center for a church’s efforts to engage the culture.

Then he starts to play fast and loose with the Constitution.  He quotes Rosenberg: “I think if we got serious about taking Jefferson and Madison’s foundational ideas of religious equality under the law into the 21stcentury, Christian nationalism would crumble.”  And then Perkins adds: “Our own Constitution closes with the words, ‘In the year of our Lord, 1787.’ That’s a reference to Jesus! The signers not only embraced Christianity, they anchored our most important document in it.”

OK.  I have written about this before.  First, the Constitution says “year of our Lord.”  It does not say anything about Jesus.  Second, this phrase hardly serves as an “anchor” of the Constitution.  Third, “In the year of our Lord” was a standard eighteenth-century way of referencing the date.  We need to be careful about giving it too much theological meeting.  Fourth, it is worth noting that an appeal to God does tell us something about the eighteenth-century world that the founders inhabited.  We don’t sign documents like this today.  Fifth, because the phrase “In the year of our Lord” is boilerplate, it was probably not added until after the delegates had left Philadelphia.  Sixth, the minutes of the Constitutional Convention reveal that there was no discussion about the phrase “In the year of our Lord.”  In other words, NO ONE said anything like: “Let’s end the document with the phrase ‘In the year of our Lord’ because it will send a message to everyone that we are creating a Christian nation.”

Perkins is correct when he says that Jefferson included the writing of the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom on his tombstone.  Jefferson was a champion of religious freedom.  He believed that everyone had the right to worship God freely without government interference.  Jefferson did not comment on whether or not it was appropriate to have a Ten Commandments display in a courthouse or a prayer before a football game.  It is very difficult to appeal to his writings (or the writings of James Madison) to argue for or against such things.

Perkins writes: “Before President Trump, Jefferson would barely recognize his country.”  Really?  Jefferson lived in a different era, but he would certainly be able to spot Christian nationalists like Perkins.  He did battle against them in his own day (Christian Federalists) and would probably do battle with them today.  Jefferson regularly slammed pious New Englanders and their Christian political establishments.  He worried that they were trying to create a Christian nation, not a nation informed by religious liberty.

I have mixed feelings about this whole religious liberty debate:

  1. When Christian Right evangelicals talk about religious liberty they use this idea in a negative way–to protect themselves and their views.  In other words, they are rarely interested in articulating a positive view of religious liberty that defends the right of all people to worship freely.
  2. There are real religious liberty issues at stake in our country right now.  Will Christian institutions who uphold traditional views of marriage, for example, remain in a position to receive government funds or maintain a tax-exempt status?  I wrote about this yesterday.

On the one hand, people like Rosenberg and Clarkson need to offer a vision of religious liberty that protects the rights of churches, Christian schools, and other Christian institutions to practice their faith in the way they see fit, even in areas of sexual politics.  Frankly, I think Hillary Clinton’s failure to defend religious liberty in this way may have, among other things, cost her the election in 2016.

On the other hand, Christian Right activists like Perkins need to stop manipulating history.  When it comes to Jefferson, Perkins could probably learn a great deal from what David Barton went through when he published The Jefferson Lies.  In the end, if Perkins believes in liberty then he cannot, at the same time, defend the idea that the government should privilege one form of religious belief over another.

 

If Thomas Jefferson Had His Way, There Would Be No Days of Prayer

ab855-thomas-jefferson

Here is Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808

I have duly received your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U. S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U. S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

I again express my satisfaction that you have been so good as to give me an opportunity of explaining myself in a private letter, in which I could give my reasons more in detail than might have been done in a public answer: and I pray you to accept the assurances of my high esteem & respect.

Notice Jefferson parts ways here with “his predecessors”–Adams and Washington.  Let the states have all the days of prayer that they want to have, but it is not appropriate for the federal government to call for such a day.

Jefferson, Secession, and Monuments

Lee

Last night on CNN, host James Lemon had African-American public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson on his program.  Lemon asked Dyson to respond to the comments Donald Trump made yesterday about historical monuments.  Trump said:

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.  I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.

All day the commentators on CNN have been outraged that Trump would compare Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  Dyson responded by saying that Lee and Jackson seceded from the union, while Jefferson and Washington, despite owning slaves, formed a “bulwark” against slavery by articulating the ideals that eventually brought the institution to an end.

On one level, I found Dyson’s comment refreshing.  When commentators say that we can’t find a usable past in Western Civilization because it is tainted by the sin of slavery, I often cringe.  Yes, Western Civilization has been inherently racist.  Yes, Western Civilization brought us slavery.  But at the same time, Western Civilization brought us the ideas and ideals–liberty and freedom especially–that were eventually applied to the slavery and ultimately brought it to an end.

I have little patience for defenders of Western Civilization who fail to acknowledge its relationship with race.  I have little patience for those who demonize Western Civilization without acknowledging the historical complexity I wrote about above.  I read several books and articles this summer that propagated both fallacies.

But when it comes to Jefferson, things are even more complicated than this.  If you read Ibram X Kendi’s recent New York Times op-ed you will learn that some of Jefferson’s ideas contributed to secession.

So should the Jefferson monuments come down?

The conversation continues.

(See my last post where I discussed this more fully).

What Would Jefferson Say?

47f4b-jefferson

What would Jefferson say about the events that took place this past weekend in Charlottesville?  The short answer is: “I have no idea.”  We can speculate, but we can’t bring Jefferson back from the grave to give his opinion.  It is an impossible question to answer and this is why we need to approach these kinds of queries with caution.

Having said that, historians can offer reasonable suggestions about what Jefferson may have thought about a troublesome moment like this. And since white supremacists marched through the campus he founded on Friday night, it is worth trying to think together about how he would have responded.

This is what historian Ibram X Kendi did in yesterday’s Washington Post.  Kendi teaches history at American University and is the National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

Here is a taste:

In sum, Jefferson’s legacy embodied the clash that snatched and harmed human life in the city of Jefferson over the last few days.

Confederate leaders revered Jefferson long before they seceded from the Union. To some he was a direct relative. He was the second cousin-in-law of Lee.

To others, he was an inspiration. Jefferson Davis was not just named after him. As a slaveholder, U.S. senator and then Confederate president, Davis shared Jefferson’s values: states’ rights, limited federal power over their property, extended federal military power over their captives, racist ideas and constitutional protections for slavery.

Although Confederate leaders traced their ideological and relational roots to Jefferson, they also knew that his most famous words threatened their plantations. The Confederates seceded from Thomas Jefferson when they seceded from his independent Union. If Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence remains the soul of the United States, then Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens revealed what historian Henry V. Jaffa termed “the soul of the Confederacy” on March 21, 1861. Both justified their new nations and laid out their ideals.

Read the rest here.

Wiencek Responds to Jan Lewis

If you were reading this weekend you are aware of my posts (here and here) on the Annette Gordon-Reed and Jan Lewis reviews of Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.

Wiencek has responded to Lewis in the comments section of her Daily Beast review. Here is the response:

I will ignore the petty twistifications in Jan Ellen Lewis’s comments on my book — the blather about indexes and the unpleasant remark about my eyesight — and get to the meat.

The problems with her review begin in the first sentence, where she mocks me for writing that Monticello is “literally above the clouds.” Perhaps she does not know that it was Jefferson himself who made that observation, in one of his most famous letters: “And our own dear Monticello . . . How sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet!”

Lewis taunts me for writing, “In ways that no one completely understands, Monticello became populated by a number of mixed-race people who looked astonishingly like Thomas Jefferson, and adds, smirking, “Um, I think we have that one figured out.” Actually, we don’t have it figured out. Jefferson’s grandson wrote that not just Sally Hemings but another Hemings woman also had children who clearly resembled Jefferson. Who was that other woman? Who were her children? Who was the father? I’ve never seen an explanation; if Lewis has seen one I will happily stand corrected. 

Among the “howlers” Lewis claims to have found is my statement that just after the American Revolution “Virginia came close to outlawing the continuation of slavery,” and she claims I quoted “some pages in a recent book that say nothing of the sort.” In fact I first quote from George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights the statement that “all men are equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they can not by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity”; I go on to quote Eva Sheppard Wolf’s analysis: “Several Revolutionary-era Virginia laws seemed to signal a shift toward anti-slavery policies that could have led to universal emancipation.” (In a passage I didn’t quote in my book, Wolf further writes that some historians “see several indications that it was possible to end = American slavery in the late eighteenth century.”) I make it clear that this surge of liberal sentiment was short-lived–but it should be noted that Virginia passed a very liberal manumission law in 1782, by which Jefferson could have freed slaves. So there is no “howler.”

And now we come to Lewis’s incoherent effort to refute the irrefutable — my verbatim quotation of Jefferson’s 1792 calculation that his enslaved population grew at the rate of 4% a year, which yielded a profit for Monticello. She tries to discredit this by quoting a letter he wrote a year later that does not support her argument at all. Lewis is trying to lead us into the weeds. Jefferson said what he said. Lewis does not mention Jefferson’s unnerving advice to a neighbor, which I quote in the book, to invest in Negroes because they “bring a silent profit of from 5 to 10 per cent in this country by the increase in their value.” Did Jefferson not write that? Or did he write it but
not mean it?

I am pleased that she quotes Jefferson proclaiming, “there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity.” He said that at least four times, but my point has been to show that nonetheless, he sacrificed nothing to end slavery, even when Kosciuszko left him a bequest of some $20,000 to enable Jefferson to free his slaves. Lewis does not mention that uncomfortable story.

Lewis’s loudest condemnation of my book is that there is nothing new in it, that she and others have long known all this. But if they knew all this, why didn’t they tell us that Jefferson recommended investing in black people as a financial strategy, or that “the small ones” were whipped to get them to work in his nail factory? Perhaps they feel as a visitor to Monticello did: “An awe and veneration was felt for Mr. Jefferson among his neighbors which . . . rendered it shameful to even talk about his name in such a connexion.” Better that the people not know these things, I guess.

Henry Wiencek